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Debating the art market as the best judge of quality

May 16, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • A debate on the art market as the best judge of quality is scheduled for the Hong Kong Convention Center.
A debate on the art market as the best judge of quality is scheduled for the… (AFP/Getty )

On May 24 at China's Hong Kong Convention Center an outfit called Intelligence Squared will host a formal debate during the debut of the newest spinoff of the Art Basel franchise of international art fairs. The motion under consideration will be: "The Market Is the Best Judge of Art's Quality."

Honest. That's the topic for debate. I figure the program harbors two, maybe three minutes of chat -- tops.

The panel is a retread of a 2011 program held at London's Saatchi Gallery. (You can watch that one on YouTube.)

But the short retort to the market-based judgment is: Nope. The longer answer is: Bernard Buffet.

You've never heard of him? In the 1950s the savior of the School of Paris rocketed to fame and fortune and became the Next Big Thing -- until he wasn't. Since then plenty of superstar market-darlings were once hot, then not -- and vice versa. Make your own list. The cultural landscape is littered with painters and sculptors seduced, abandoned or just plain ignored by the profit-driven markets, regardless of artistic depth.

Never mind the ordinary vagaries of supply and demand, which transform market prices -- whether for Picasso, pork bellies or Cabbage Patch dolls -- into the distorted reflections of a fun-house mirror. The market is just a shopping mall; it judges what's best for the market -- what sells. Which is fine by me.

A cynic might even wonder why decisions on cultural values would be entrusted to the faceless financial elites responsible for the recent crashing of the economy, throwing millions into turmoil. And then there's the matter of young artists coming out of burgeoning art schools with massive debt, just like their non-artist peers: They need to pay back loans somehow, which creates enormous pressure on their work, which feeds into the market maw, which ... you get the idea.

So the art market is a judge of quality, just like Mom and cousin Fred are, but hardly the best judge.

There's a simpler explanation as to why collectors and dealers aren't the ones deciding who, finally, are the important artists. (Nor, for that matter, do curators, critics or the general public.) It's because artists do. Artists decide who is worth paying attention to among their cohorts.

They do it by picking up indirectly from modern culture's unconscious -- or flat-out stealing from the best. What we call quality is largely a factor of the breadth, depth and longevity of excitement artists harbor for other artists' work. Art comes from art. It doesn't come from Goldman Sachs.

Scheduled to speak in favor of the debate's market motion at the new Hong Kong art fair are Amy Cappellazzo of Christie's auction house and longtime art investment advisor and art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, current director of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Speaking against the market as arbiter of the best are Matthew Collings and Rirkrit Tiravanija -- both artists.

Pick your vested interests. Debate over.

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